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Trading Days in Canyon de Chelly

S.E. (Sam) Day Sr. Trading Post near Tse-ye canyon (now called Canyon de Chelly) around the turn of the century.

S.E. (Sam) Day Sr. Trading Post near Tse-ye canyon (now called Canyon de Chelly) around the turn of the century.

The S.E. (Sam) Day Sr. Trading Post was built at the turn of the century by Day and his sons near the spectacular canyon called Tse-ye (in the rock) by the Navajo and today known as Canyon de Chelly. The post was operated by Day for almost a decade before being sold. It is still standing today, on what is now Thunderbird Lodge in the mouth of Canyon de Chelly.

Sam Day was born in Ohio in 1845. He was a civil engineer by trade and came to the southwest in 1884 with a railroad crew to survey the rail line being built up Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Later he moved to Apache County in the Arizona Territory with his wife and three sons to survey the eastern and southern boundaries of the Navajo reservation.

He homesteaded in a meadowland called Cienaga Amarilla near what is today the eastern border of Arizona. The town that grew up there is called St. Michaels and is just southwest of Window Rock. Local tribal leaders discouraged settlers from homesteading in the area because the meadow was used as grazing land and there was a water hole on it. Their legal claims to it were hazy however, and Day built a home there anyway. He had enough sensitivity to the situation to hire Indian labor to build a fence on the property, though, paying wages for the work and being careful to allow access to the area for the whole community.

Day learned the Navajo language during that period. When Catholic priests established the mission at St. Michaels some time later, Day arranged to trade his language skill for their teaching skills, instructing the priests in the Navajo language in exchange for his children’s schooling.

The Day sons all became traders at an early age. Charles moved 40 miles north to work at the Bill Beaver Trading Post and later bought the place. He ran into problems fraternizing with the locals, however, and an Indian agent was asked to intervene. His father went up to help him out and stayed to help with the operation of the post. Later Sam moved to Canyon de Chelly, several miles away, to build the large stone and log complex that became his trading post.

Sam Day’s post quickly became a community center for that part of the reservation. Local ceremonies and popular day-long games of chicken pulls (which involved pulling a live chicken out of the ground by its neck while on horseback) and horse racing were held there.

Sam Day moved back to St. Michaels in the early part of the century – likely after he sold the trading post at Canyon de Chelly – and became active in the territorial legislature and served as a U.S. commissioner in Apache County. He died in 1925.

One of his other sons, Sam Day Jr., also became a trader and later, a Forest Service employee. He served as an adviser to Fred Harvey on the use Indian symbols and designs for Harvey hotels and was a source of information on Navajo culture for artists and scientists.

— Joan Brundige-Baker. Photo courtesy Northern Arizona University Special Collection.

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